Although the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life,”[i] many Catholics are unfamiliar with its rich Old Testament and Jewish background. In this article, we will look at four aspects of this background: the king-priest Melchizedek, the Passover, the manna, and the bread of the Presence.
Melchizedek: Priest of God Most High
The first prefiguration of the Eucharist goes back to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek in the book of Genesis. This Melchizedek, called “king of Salem” and “priest of God Most High,” brought out bread and wine to Abraham and blessed him (Gen 14:18-20). His name means “king of righteousness” in Hebrew, and Salem—a shortened form of “Jerusalem” (cf. Ps 76:2)—derives from the word shalom (peace), so Melchizedek’s name also means “king of peace” (cf. Heb 7:2). Melchizedek is mentioned only in two other places in the Bible. In Psalm 110, the psalmist says to the Davidic king, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4); and the Epistle to the Hebrews identifies this Davidic king-priest with Christ (Heb 5:6-10; 6:20-7:17). The Church sees in Melchizedek’s offering to Abraham a prefiguring of her own eucharistic offering, in which Christ is presented to the Father under the species of bread and wine.[ii]
The Passover: Redemption from Slavery
But why bread and wine? In the Old Covenant these were offered in sacrifice “among the first fruits of the earth as a sign of grateful acknowledgment to the Creator.”[iii] Bread and wine acquired a particular significance in the context of the Passover and Exodus. When God delivered Israel out of Egypt, He commanded each Israelite family to slaughter a lamb, sprinkle its blood on the doorposts of the house, then eat the roasted lamb together with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (symbolizing the bitterness of slavery and haste of their imminent departure) (Ex 12:1-11). The sprinkled blood of the lamb protected the Israelite firstborn sons from the plague against the firstborn Egyptians and marked the beginning of their redemption from slavery.
The celebration of the Passover would henceforth for the Jewish people remain a perpetual memorial of God’s deliverance.[iv] Eventually, four cups of wine were added to its commemoration, representing God’s four redemptive actions during the Exodus.[v]